Dept. of Media

On the National Stage High-ranking editor Susan Glasser is pissing off some people at the Washington Post. Could that be a good thing?

Alice Lewis

Late last year, the Washington Post hired Susan Glasser to head its coverage of national news. Ever since, Glasser’s boss can’t stop talking about her vision. “Susan is one of our most talented and visionary journalists,” said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. at the time. In a recent interview, he said, “Susan has a strong vision and that is one of the reasons she got this job, and I’m pleased to see that she’s carrying it out.”

So just what is this grand vision?

Let Glasser tackle that one: “What I outlined was…a vision of positive evolution and transformation of the national section of the Washington Post, with an emphasis on the positive, and how can we engage in thinking about…this moment in time differently and...define an idea of change and transformation at the paper that involves us embracing new ideas and ways of thinking about our journalism that are suited to the moment?” she says.

No wonder Downie says the following when asked about her weaknesses: “I think anybody who has a really strong vision needs to make certain that they are able to communicate [that vision] to everybody, and that’s a challenge facing her,” says Downie.

Nicely put. What Downie won’t say is that the 38-year-old Glasser is a manager who combines high standards with sharp elbows, and not “everybody” is pleased to be working under her vision. Some say that she has created a generational divide that favors the younger reporters under her tutelage; others insist she’s just really tough to deal with. “There is negative energy in the office,” says one Post staffer who declined to be identified.

Whatever, say the paper’s big dogs. Cuddliness these days isn’t a required trait among top editors at the Post. At a time when average daily circulation has dipped below 700,000, despite all manner of improvements in layout and subscription incentives; when management has trimmed the news staff via two painful rounds of buyouts; and when further shrinkage is an accepted fact of life, courteous plodders don’t help. “Do we need to be shaken up a bit? Yeah, we do,” says Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Glasser’s No. 2. “The old sort of fat, happy complacent days are over. We’re losing subscribers.”

Glasser’s accession to one of the Post’s key jobs came as little surprise to a newsroom where she’s long been tagged a comer. A product of Andover and Harvard, she blazed a similar path to the top job at Roll Call, a paper she left before joining the Post in 1998.

And now she commands a pivotal piece of the Post’s news portfolio. The national section, staffed by 75 reporters and editors, compiles what media dorks call the paper’s “core franchises”—namely, national politics and national security. Pieces on the environment and science also pass through Glasser’s filter. This big bundle does more than just stuff the A section of each morning’s paper. It also fuels the phenomenal reach of washingtonpost.com, which draws 82 percent of its traffic from outside of the Washington region.

Mealy-mouthed mission statements notwithstanding, Glasser has steadily put great work on the page. During her tenure earlier this decade as a foreign correspondent, she wrote penetrating narrative-driven pieces from Moscow and hopped planes to cover the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a signature effort, she conducted her own investigation of the missteps of U.S. forces in the battle of Tora Bora, an al-Qaeda hideout. The definitive account, written in February 2002, won high praise from the Post ombudsman and others. “Her copy was clean, there was not a lot of angst about it, and it went into the newspaper,” says Tony Reid, who ran the foreign desk’s copy operation during Glasser’s tour.

Not everyone in the foreign operation was so enamored. During her four years abroad, Glasser, in the words of one former colleague, had a “pathological” tendency to leapfrog junior editors and stovepipe to the top foreign editor. Her manners earned her the nickname “Miss Toxic,” according to newsroom colleagues.

Whatever her rep, Glasser’s superiors had the good sense to place her atop the Outlook section, the Post’s Sunday presentation of opinions and rants on the issues of the day. While helming Outlook for nearly all of 2006, Glasser tried to insert new voices into the mix, instead of “just the same cast of characters from Brookings,” she says.

Glasser’s crew wrote fun pieces on everything from Georgetown to why marriage is for white people. She created new items for the section and excelled at packaging. Even the snoozers invited a second look from readers. “Susan has the ability to capture the essence of an issue or an argument and turn it into something exciting, and I think she did that in Outlook,” says Post Managing Editor Phil Bennett.

In moving from Outlook to national, Glasser bagged the ivory tower for a hive of egos and gossips. A crash course in the higher stakes of newsroom management came quickly upon her December 2006 start, courtesy of a huge personnel snafu that Post higher-ups still haven’t adequately explained.

The trouble centered on 15-year Post reporter Charles Babington, a national section foot soldier who didn’t pay too much attention to the changeover at the top. He went about his business of covering Congress just as he had for the previous two-and-a-half years.

Then something strange happened, according to knowledgeable sources. Top Metro Editor Robert McCartney wanted to have a word with him. In a now-infamous meeting, McCartney asked Babington if he was interested in covering Maryland politics from Annapolis, a job that Babington had done years before. He declined. McCartney pressed the issue, suggesting that Babington really ought to think about it. Just then, Babington realized that McCartney knew something he didn’t—namely, that Babington had fallen from grace at national. (McCartney declined to comment.)

Too bad no one bothered to tell Babington himself. After a couple of heated conversations with his higher-ups, Babington was packing his files and heading to a new job in the business section. He subsequently left the Post to cover Congress for the Associated Press. “When the editors reassigned me in December, I asked if they could cite any significant story where I had fallen short or been beaten by the competition. They either could not or would not,” says Babington via e-mail.

Babington was a respected and beloved presence at the Post, and staffers to this day express outrage that such a figure would be treated “like dirt,” in the words of a veteran reporter. Glasser’s take? “It’s just one individual—it’s a big staff….Changes happen on a big staff,” she says.

Another individual had a more recent run-in with Glasser’s personnel management. Postie Terry Neal applied for an editing job on the national desk and had discussions with a Glasser deputy about the position. The deputy told Neal that another candidate had a strong shot at the job but urged Neal to interview with Glasser. So he did.

Minutes after the Neal-Glasser discussion, the entire Post newsroom received an electronic posting that national had filled the job. Neal was not the choice. The circumstances suggested that Neal had been put through a charade interview. Glasser declined to comment on the matter. (Neal has since left the paper.)

Glasser can silence whispers about ham-handed management by delivering on the vision she conveyed upon winning the job. Nearly eight months in, however, her revolution appears to be one of increments. She has thrown out the “Federal Page” in favor of an expanded “In the Loop” experience. Whereas “In the Loop” was once the sole territory of brilliant columnist Al Kamen, now several writers are practicing in the suite—a perfect way to confuse the reader and water down a great institution.

Other Glasser changes are just fine, as far as they go. She has upped the frequency of political reporter Dana Milbank’s popular Washington Sketch on Page A2 and pushed to place his work on the front page. She has booted the “Coast to Coast” feature in the Sunday paper’s second page—a Dept. of Media favorite—in favor of more political reportage. And she has driven wall-to-wall coverage of the 2008 presidential race, with an accent on the fundraising craziness and profiles of the candidates’ advisers. “We are making some decisions about what our priorities are. And the two priorities are the ones that are preoccupying people across the country: the war in Iraq and the presidential election,” says Bill Hamilton, the paper’s chief political editor.

Given her Roll Call background, Glasser lives for politics, and the Post is starting to reflect her passion. Sure, the coverage skews insiderish, but sometimes “connected” makes for a better description. Last week, for example, the paper produced a marvelous account of the implosion of Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign, complete with spicy quotes and a tight narrative. Not to mention a tight deadline—news of the McCain collapse hit in midweek, and the Post had the takeout piece on Saturday. “In the past, I think, we would have been thrilled to have that McCain piece a week after the fact, if at all,” says Chandrasekaran. “It was a piece of magazine-quality journalism that was turned around on a dime for a newspaper.”

In all, Glasser’s daily report feels competent and comprehensive—in other words, a lot like the section she inherited. Downie likes it: “There’s more inside information about what’s going on in Washington, which is what the Washington Post should be doing,” he says. Glasser, too, appears to have the backing of the section’s star reporters. “I have a weekly story meeting with Susan,” says military correspondent Thomas Ricks. “I walk out of the story meetings excited. These are people who can develop a story with you.” Peter Baker, the paper’s White House correspondent, is a Glasser fan who also doubles as her husband. “What Susan’s trying to do here is take us to a new level and play in a new world,” says Baker.

That new world, of course, is the Web, and it’s one spot where Glasser’s prickliness has tangled a bit with her brilliance. From her early days atop national, Glasser has pushed an aggressive plan for adding to the already substantial politics coverage on washingtonpost.com. The urgency stemmed in large part from a cataclysm that hit just before she arrived. Two of the Post’s political aces, John Harris and Jim VandeHei, bolted the paper to launch the Politico, a rival startup publication with a heavy Internet component.

Glasser won’t reveal her Webby brainstorms, but she does confess to a frustration that they’re not yet on the site. “There’s no question that we weren’t able to make the kind of progress that I wanted to make as quickly as I wanted to make it,” she says.

The Post’s Arlington-based dot-com shop attributes at least part of the problem to Glasser’s comportment. At one point this year, dot-com staffers who were put off by her attitude received the following instructions: “Don’t focus on the way Susan says things. Try to focus on her ideas,” according to a dot-com source.

Such guidance may well account for a recent thaw in Glasser’s relations with the Arlington crowd. The two sides have recently been huddling in an attempt to slap Glasser’s ideas onto computer screens around the world.

Clashes between newsies and dot-com, furthermore, don’t necessarily signal a crisis. The two entities squabble all the time, and if the result is innovation, who cares if some feelings are hurt? “We don’t always agree on everything, but we’ve had lively and fruitful discussions,” says Liz Spayd, the former top national editor and now a senior washingtonpost.com official.

Something of a mystery surrounds what, exactly, Glasser & Co. are cooking up. Knowledgeable newsroom staffers call it a blog written by national staffers that’ll focus on the 2008 presidential elections, with a working title of “The Trail.” But just throwing another blog onto the Web is way too 2001 for a transformer like Glasser, who insists it’s “not a blog.”

Says Downie: “Blog’s not the right word for it.”

Sounds like groundbreaking stuff. And if it doesn’t work, you can bet that Glasser will launch another concept, even if she has to ruffle a few feathers in the process. “She’s not afraid to do things that may be difficult for others to accept at first,” says Bennett.

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